Gary Livingston: Baseball Memories

Earlier this week I found an email from my Uncle Gary. In it he shared his baseball memories, and I think this is a really great way to extend the On the Force or the Tag series. Please feel free to send me your baseball stories and pictures, and I’ll be sure so add it to the page. – PAL

Gary Livingston in the vintage jersey. 

Blogger and nephew, Phil, has inspired me to recollect my youth and past baseball memories. Unlike Phil, I was marginally talented. Like Phil, I loved the game and I knew the game.

My first memories of playing catch are with my mom. I later learned she was a small-town farm girl legend as the tomboy who could play ball. In her day she played kitten ball. I still have the kitten ball she gave me. She had a great arm and I never had to worry about throwing too hard to her. Phil captures the essence of who has the game in their blood, when he writes that when the simple game of catch is enough to entertain for hours—you know they love the game.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in which moms stayed home and kids played outside until supper. We had a group of 3 “big” kids who dictated our play. They were four years older and wiser. I was among the 6-10 little kids. The big kids decided the sport—baseball, football—how—waffle ball, left-handed—where—street, yard, sandlot. They decided rainy day activities—chess, trivia, and the king of indoor games of our youth—Little Baseball.

Little Baseball consisted of each player picking a major league team. We had little plastic baseball players from cereal boxes as players and found the bakery sold plastic players to be used as cake decorations. We each painted and named our players from the MLB team. I remember the detail and pride we took in painting our players: the black and gold of the Pirates, the number on their back to the color of their skin.

We made a game board from a 4’x4’ sheet of plywood or sheetrock. The players took the field and guarded circles with hits labeled in each. We pitched the ball/marble by rolling down a ramp and the hitter would strike with a wooden dowel bat. We kept score, statistics, played a whole season, which included an All-Star game and World Series. Each year was a new season and brought more sophistication to game. Dave, a big kid with creative talent, helped turn our boards into works of art including lights, spectator bleachers, and scoreboards. The Big kids were their league of choice—usually American—and we little kids would be the National. I still have my Cardinals Curt Flood and Vada Pinson and Pirate- Roberta Clemente as I painted them 50+ years ago. Remarkably, our favorite players would perform the best in our board game. We could hole up for hours playing in the basement and at night compile batting averages and ERA’s.

The Kitten ball and the hand-painted figurines.

My organized baseball began with T-Shirt league at the local park. I was a Tiger in Little League. Dick Wilder was my coach. I remember him as knowledgeable, kind, and always encouraging. Everything you want in a youth coach. Looking back, I was a shy, skinny kid, unsure of himself on hard ground balls and overmatched against hard throwing pitchers, yet coach let me play second base and admired my good eye and bunting ability to find a way to get on base. As a teen I tried out and did not make the cut to play Babe Ruth. That hurt; I remember the 5-mile walk home from the practice I was cut at. I cried and did not want the ride home with the coach. Kids are resilient. I was asked if I wanted to play Minor League. It consisted of kids who had not played the game seriously. The coach was a dad who had limited knowledge of baseball. The coach recognized I played the game and asked if I wanted to run practice, make line-ups, pitch, play shortstop. I knew this was not high quality baseball, but I had fun.

My real baseball experience as a kid was playing with friends. I can’t say an adult, besides my mom, or coach taught me to play the game, or any game for that matter. We all learned to develop an intuition for all sports by playing with friends. I’m befuddled by major laagers with limited baseball sense—not knowing what base to throw to or not knowing when to take the extra base. Summer days were a game in the morning, lunch, and double-header in the afternoon, supper, backyard wiffle baseball. The games were designed around the number of players, location. Some fields dictated we all bat left-handed. Advantage Tony-the only lefty.

I do not remember any adults having input in our play. We just had to be home for supper. One summer, I guess 1966; we had the idea to involve the girls of the neighborhood. We were 13-14 and discovered that having the girls around was a good idea. The Big kids took the girls ages 13-14 and coached them to play the game while we “little” kids took the new little boys ages 8-10 and prepared them to play the older girls. We discovered what I think we already knew; the girls were athletes.  We enlisted Tom, a mild Downs teen, to ump the big game. I don’t remember the outcome; it doesn’t matter. I don’t think it mattered then. This is years before Title 9. I’m impressed by the insight of these kids. Over the years I have come to conclusion that adults are much too involved with kids play. Kids left to their own devices are wise and creative. Kids today have become dependent on adults to dictate their play, their thinking, their creativity. Youth sports has become more about the adults.

As a group of friends we played baseball, basketball and touch football through our teens. As young adults we joined local rec leagues to play touch and softball. It was always more about playing with friends than the game, though we were competitive and took the game seriously. Sometimes I regret we did not play baseball versus softball, but there were not the adult opportunities that exist today to play hardball. That said, the athletes I played with and against were truly great athletes and the play was high caliber ball.

As part of my softball experience I became a certified softball ump. My first lessons about umpping came through the director of Brooklyn Center Parks & Rec. I was the organizer and captain of our softball team and attended the organizational meetings. Director Arnie made it clear that arguing with umpires was not tolerated. He was an ump and a good one. He finished every meeting with the reminder that unless you were perfect in bed with your wife don’t expect perfection from umpires.

 

I understood from my experiences that umps/refs make mistakes. Players, coaches, parents make mistakes; unless you are perfect expecting perfection from others is unreasonable. I am distressed when I hear a young person blame a loss on poor officiating. This is learned from adults. In the rare instance when a game is decided by an officiating error, I wonder if every single player can look back at that game or any game and say they played the perfect game—there was not an instance where they could have changed the outcome with better play. I always taught players, students, parents—“The ump/ref is always right, even when they are wrong.” Once again I blame the over-organizing of youth sport for the inability for kids to self regulate their own play, settle their own differences and arguments. They have been taught to rely on adults to organize and officiate their play.

My baseball life became complete when the Twins won the ’87 World Series and again for frosting on the cake in ‘91. Like most Minnesota sports fans, we had never experienced the thrill of being the champs. A baseball fan highlight was attending the welcome back Twins homecoming at the Dome in the evening after defeating Detroit and earning the right to play the Cardinals in the World Series. Unexpectedly, the building was filled with true fans starved for a chance to celebrate. It brings a tear to my eye to this day. Now if the Gophers can get to the Rose Bowl before I die.

I am 65. Sports are in my DNA. I was a sports rube; I lost sleep with Viking/Twins loses. Minnesota teams are in my DNA, but today there are many more important things in my life then if a team wins or loses. I just don’t care that much about who does what any more. Sporting contests have become events and big business. Baseball games have become too long. I do not enjoy the angst displayed with every pitch, every play. That is what has made the games so long. The deep breaths, adjusting of the glove, the manager examining his analytic card, players with analytic cards, finding the perfect matchup or pitch—it drives me crazy—just play the game. This lack of interest carries over into watching my grandkids play ball. Maybe I am a bad grandparent, but I do not feel a need to watch all their games, and I hope they do not feel a need to play in front of me or anyone for that matter. Play the game for the joy of playing, not for performing for adults. Truth be told, I find the games boring. I just hope the kids have fun; and I am able to play catch with them as my mom played catch with me.

Gary Livingston

 

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On the Force or the Tag: Part V

On The Force or the Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. Read earlier sections:

The dugout in which the meeting with Calloway happened. 


Memory is Duct tape. It’ll hold together bits of truth well enough for us to get on with the day.  

The season ended abruptly. My fiance and I had scheduled a trip to Denver on what was to be the final weekend of games. It was not a good look for the coach to be absent, but the last weekend of games were cancelled anyway. They couldn’t find any umpires.  

Following the previous game – what become our last – I told the fellas how much I enjoyed coaching them. I encouraged them to call if they ever wanted me to throw batting practice or hit fungos. There were a few thank yous from parents and players in the parking lot, but no one was pretending the season was more than it was. In total, I coached eight games, one practice, and one batting practice session with Zack.

Regardless of the brevity of the season, these are my guys now. That’s how this coaching gig works. My wish for them is that they find a calling, they work very hard to master that calling, and they feel the buzz of success regularly. If they need me, I hope they know I’ll answer the call.

I enjoyed every player on the team – truly – and they seemed to like me enough, too. If fate would have it so, it would be a welcome surprise to bump into any of my guys in five or ten years and get an update on how things are going.

My account of this season and the relationships forged with these players is just that: one account. In truth, there is a high likelihood that at least one player on this team did not like me. Someone felt that I had picked favorites, and he wasn’t one of them, and that I didn’t know squat about baseball. I would bet these were the topics of conversation at that monument of adolescence – the car ride home from a game with a parent.

Some portion of that story occured. How can I be so sure? Everyone who has ever played a sport at any level has had at least one coach who didn’t mesh, whether the coach knew it or not. My coach was Chris Calloway.  

I framed this series as a thank you to the great coaches throughout my baseball life. What I haven’t mentioned is I’ve spent as much time thinking about Calloway (not his real name), as any other coach I ever had.

I end with Calloway because baseball’s ultimate lesson is failure.

***

The high school field at Roseville. They can keep leveling and re-edging that field until the end of time, but it will always be a crap field. In the background you can see the hill and Highway 36 where we’d have to shag foul balls.

Calloway played the part of a coach convincingly. While he was no tactician, he was pigeon-toed and sauntered across the infield like a coach. He’d yell odd phrases from the dugout – Get foul, you communist whore! –  that sounded gruff, coach-like, but he also tried to pass off obvious objectives of the game as wisdom – you gotta throw strikes, hit the ball hard. He’d chew leaf tobacco and work hopelessly on our p.o.s. high school field during the summer while his dog ran along the fence line. His aura dripped baseball coach, but it wasn’t the real thing.

To Calloway, my enthusiasm for the game was a book picked up, thumbed through, and never read. I was another player to him, and that did not work for me. I worked hard to be more than just another player, and every other coach prior to him had encouraged me. Calloway didn’t care how much I cared. I grew to hate him for that, flatout. I resolved to prove him wrong and extract his respect without ever knowing what evidence would be sufficient proof I’d succeeded.

The goal was a D-I college baseball scholarship. I’d mapped out a plan in detail. 200 swings a day on the tee in the basement. Long-toss three times a week throughout the year. Blocking drills, framing, working out in the gym. I quit hockey – in Minnesota! –  to focus on doing everything I could to reach this goal. These were not sacrifices; I enjoyed every bit of it. I was fifteen, and because high school baseball is played during the spring, that meant I would likely need a scholarship offer after the summer season (Legion ball) of my junior year. I had two years. Not much time.

I started out ahead of schedule. Calloway asked me to join the varsity tryouts during my freshman year. In exchange for catching bullpens, I was allowed to practice with the upperclassmen. There was no chance I was going to make the varsity roster as a freshman – I knew that – but with that time I was able to assess the catcher pecking order in the program up close.

Jack Rose was the senior left-handed cleanup hitter with a cannon arm. Quick hands and a big ass. Borderline all-state catcher. Rose was graduating, and he gave me rides to the tryouts in his wagon. He was not my concern. Nico Roll was my concern.

Roll was one year ahead of me. A three-sport athlete with all of the physical ability to be good-to-great in just about any sport. He was a running back, a winger, and a catcher. He could hit, he could throw, and he could run. These are the measurables that show in a tryout. Nico also thought about Wu-Tang Clan far more consistently than he thought about baseball. That was not something that showed in a tryout. If anything, a lack of interest can be easily misread as an ‘even-keel approach’ in the short time frame of a tryout.

The following year, my task was quite plain coming into tryouts. In order to stay on schedule for a D-I scholarship, I had to beat out Roll at catcher. I was more consistent defensively, a left-handed hitter, and cared about nothing but baseball. I’d been working at it every day since the gym tryouts the previous year.

Roll was a more powerful hitter, and I already mentioned the speed. His best was pretty damn good, but he rarely showed it. Catcher is a position that will make a mess out of a guy if his head isn’t in it. The catcher is the captain on the field, the only one that has the entire field in front of him. To put it in Kent Anderson terms – every ball’s coming to me, know what I’m going to do with it – the catcher needs to know what every player on the field is supposed to do in every situation. Simply too much happens all of the time for someone with an occasional interest in baseball to play the position.

It was hard to tell who had the edge, and I waited for Calloway’s announcement. I finally had to ask. We were walking out by the loading docks in the back of the gym. Roll was going to start. Calloway seemed unsure why he even had to say it out loud.

It was the first moment in my life in which I encountered another’s talent that outweighed my desire. All things weren’t equal. Hard work had not paid off on my expectation, and I’d lost to a guy that didn’t care. Worst of all, Roll was a junior, meaning I’d sit behind him for two years. By the time my senior year would come I would miss most any chance to get a scholarship. This was not the plan.

And then, without warning, Roll was caught dipping in class before the season opener. Mandatory two week suspension. There I was, starting a varsity game as a sophomore playing against Cretin at their legendary diamond in St. Paul. I hit the ball hard a couple times that game, and I remember a walk-off hit against Coon Rapids. After the Coon Rapids game Calloway referred to my hit as something along the lines of a ground ball with eyes.

Cretin-Derham Hall. High school field of Joe Mauer and Paul Molitor. 

I don’t remember much else from those two weeks other than being extremely happy and feeling like I was where I was supposed to be. I played well, I think, and it wasn’t crazy to hope that I’d continue catching after Roll’s suspension. Who knows if the stats would prove my memory correct or not. Memory is Duct tape.

Roll served his suspension and was back into the lineup shortly thereafter. I was the designated hitter for a couple games, and then I was on the bench taking my turn shagging foul balls along Highway 36. I hated shagging foul balls at that field. You had to walk behind parents and students to climb over the chainlink fence and search for a baseball in high grass along the highway as cars and semis blew by. Put on an orange vest, and it’d be difficult to distinguish a bench player from a minimum security prisoner doing highway cleanup.

I was certain Calloway had it out for me and was going out of his way to screw me. He was drawn to athletes over ballplayers. In Minnesota, that meant he liked the hockey players that also played baseball. I’d quit hockey to become a ballplayer.

He liked Roll. Calloway once brought Roll a Sport Illustrated article about the Pirates catcher Jason Kendall. The story is about the two sides of Kendall: the surfer bum and the hard-nosed, always dirty, win-at-any-cost ballplayer with a huge wad of tobacco poking out of his cheek. Roll had the laid back portion of Kendall down (and the tobacco*), but he wasn’t hard-nosed. He wasn’t a ballplayer.

Calloway was trying to inspire Roll. In retrospect, I understand Calloway trying to jumpstart a player, but you can’t coach a kid to care. Kent, my Little League coach, could tell that from a game of catch with a ten year old. Still, it hurt to see Calloway try with Roll and wonder why he wouldn’t try with me.

The easy answer would be that I didn’t need it. That I already had the drive. That, of course, is disingenuous bullshit. I was a teenager, not a monk. How about an ‘atta boy’ every now and again?

At one point, I even had a meeting with Calloway to try to figure out what I could do differently. In a moment I’ll always regret, I had my older brother, Matt, join us in the dugout. I cried. I was failing, and I didn’t know how handle it. That moment remains utterly embarrassing and emasculating.

***

In the end – what do you know – it worked out. It took me a long time before it sunk into my teenage brain that I couldn’t control Calloway. What I could do was keep up with the daily 200 swings off of the tee and keep taking one more step back on the long toss.

You win by outlasting them. You care more for longer, and eventually the people between you and what you want quit. It’s not always the cinematic moment, the walk-off hit. In many ways, success is attrition.

I don’t think Roll even finished his senior year of baseball. What’s more telling – I can’t remember.  

I didn’t get that D-I scholarship, but I got some money to play at Augustana College, a D-II school (2018 D-II National Champs!). We played damn good ball for Coach Holm, and the team rode buses across Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska playing baseball in decaying minor league stadiums and through spring time snowstorms. We caravanned across the gray, wet belly of America on a diet of Euchre and orange peanut-butter crackers.

About to ride back from Greeley, Colorado with a NCC conference championship. Left to Right: Bergie, Wally, Kroeger, Schultzy, O-Dog, yours truly in the headphones, Walzy in the background with the looooooong cargo shorts, and Sammy’s chest far right. 

I was lucky to play a bunch all four years, to be captain two of those years, and to help win the first conference championship in the program’s history. My grandpa, my dad, my brothers got to see me play college baseball. Mom, too. She’d sit watch like a sentinel in that Sioux Falls wind galloping across the Dakota plains.  

I also spent my time sending writing samples to authors, drinking beers with teammates who would become lifelong friends, learning to play the guitar, and streaking across the quad. I read Tim O’Brien, John Fowles, and Steinbeck with a pen in hand and slipped terrible love letters into the shadows beneath dorm room doors.

After all those great times, why do I still think of those days with Calloway? Why do I still want to extract that goddamn, worthless respect out of him? Why does a part of me still need him to know I wasn’t a phony?

What bothered me as a teenager and what bothers me now are different points. As a kid, I wanted to play, to be great, and be recognized for it. As I saw it, Calloway wouldn’t allow that to happen, which of course isn’t entirely true. If I was an obvious D-I scholarship player, I would’ve taken Roll’s starting spot at some point.

As an adult, Calloway’s wasted opportunity bothers me as much as anything. He coached with no joy. It offends me that he held that Varsity Baseball Coach job for years, keeping it away from a coach who could’ve been to other players what Kent, Tony, Jay, and Holm were to me. It also bothers me at how quickly I panicked when Roll was given the starting gig. It took me too long to toughen up and deal with the situation by simply controlling what I could control, which was my effort and attitude.

But If I’m going to write about it like this, if I’m going to critique a man twenty years later, then I need to unwrap the Duct tape and examine all of the bits of truth that remain, not just the ones that fit within my emotional truth.

For as uninterested as I remember him to be, Calloway gave me a key to the baseball storage closet so we could get in the old gym and take B.P. anytime we wanted. That was our practice space throughout the winter, during the time the coach couldn’t be working with the players.

He also must have recommended me for a fall wood bat league that ultimately allowed me to catch the attention of my college coach. He spoke well enough about me to have Augustana offer me a scholarship. Without his endorsement, it is highly unlikely that happens. That is a huge detail I’d overlooked until writing this.

And we need to leave room for one other consideration. When we think of coaches, we let the title stand in for the entire person. We don’t think of them sitting at a cubicle the eight hours before they go to the field, and we can’t imagine them in the role of spouse, parent, son, or daughter. We have no idea what people carry on their shoulders on any given day, month, decade, or lifetime.

I have the right to share this story – my story – but I don’t want to be so self-centered as to not even acknowledge that Calloway was more than a coach, and there were parts of his life I didn’t see that impacted our relationship. These are not excuses, but it’s not always about us. Maybe it’s even rarely about us, and we need to leave space to remember that.

So it’s OK if some of the guys I coached this summer didn’t like me, but I hope they believe I care about them. I hope they work hard so they compete and expect to succeed in the moments when real life is at stake, whether that success comes as a cinematic moment or as the invisible victories of persistance. Kent, Tony, Jay, Holm – that’s what they gave me, and that’s about as big of a gift as it gets.

I also hope they know I will throw them B.P. and hit them fungos until it’s too dark to see. I’ll do it because I love to coach, but I’ll also do it because there’s no place I’d rather be than on a baseball field. – PAL

FOOTNOTES:

*I’m realizing now that tobacco is at the root of this chapter. Calloway chewed while working on the field, Roll was suspended for dipping in class. Kendall always and wad in his cheek, and I took up the nasty habit early in college (and have since quit).

A huge thank you to TOB for reading and editing these five chapters. Over the several years we’ve been doing 1-2-3 Sports!, I’ve come to love his writing and trust his opinion immensely. Also, a big thank you to Jay Kurtis for digging up some vintage pics from Little League, and to my mom and dad for digging up old team photos from cardboard boxes in the basement.

 

On the Force or the Tag: Part IV

On The Force or the Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. Read earlier sections:

Photo c/o Jay Kurtis (third from left, back row of players). Youth All-Star teams leave an amusing footprint. At least six of the players from my ten year-old “All-Star” team (if you can even call it that at such a young age) didn’t play baseball by the time they were in high school. I’m first from the left, front row.


The league coaches were to meet at a cafe after our Sunday game – game eight of the season – to discuss all-star selections. Despite there being a vintage sports bar with the sturdy name George & Walt’s no more than half a mile away, we were to meet at a cafe at four in the afternoon. Is there anything more Berkeley than that?

After a close win earlier that day, our team had improved to 7-1 on the year. Larry, our catcher, even hit a no-doubter home run to left. I couldn’t have been happier with the players. They were starting to pick up on how I managed a game – always the aggressor, always putting the pressure on the other team to make plays – and guys were seeing the same opportunities I saw. Hank didn’t need to be told to try to drop down a bunt for a hit. Abe would give me a look while he took his lead from second base, as if to say “They ain’t holding me, coach…” I’d give him a quick nod and he’d steal a bag.

We were getting to know each other’s tendencies just as the season was coming to an end. I was also just getting a sense of where the guys was as a players – what their strengths were and how I could help their weaknesses. I wish we had ten more games and a dozen practices. I walked to the cafe with best guesses on all-star selections and no understanding of the inner workings and politics of the league. At least I had the latter.

By the grace of god, the cafe was closed. We found an Italian restaurant with a circular table in the front corner and ordered a round of beers. The Five Families, it was not. Glen, the ump from Part I, coach of the green team, and coach of the all-star team, was running the show. There was Bobby, the coach of the grey team and local high school athletic director, and two other dads that helped with the All-Star Team. I can’t remember meeting them prior to the all-star selection.

The great thing about sport is that it’s a meritocracy. That’s the bullshit line they feed you. In reality, there is nepotism, politics, and cliques at every level of baseball (and every other sport), from coach pitch all the way to the professionals.

There was a dad up the cul-de-sac from where I grew up that stacked a coach-pitch team. I was nine. Brothers, fathers, relatives of elite players magically find jobs within organizations or take up roster spots in the minor league system. Jake Mauer, older brother of Joe Mauer, was drafted in the 23rd round by the Minnesota Twins the same year Joe was the number one overall pick coming out of high school. Jake was an excellent D-III player, but hit .256 with 0 home runs and 82 RBI in over 1,000 minor league at bats spread across five seasons. Was another team really going to draft a D-III position player in the middle rounds? In basketball, does Austin Rivers get as long of a leash in the NBA if his dad isn’t Doc Rivers, his coach and GM? We all know the reality here.

And yet I walked into the selection meeting holding onto this cliche – sport is a meritocracy.

Glen started the meeting by informing us what positions were already filled unless we had any objections. He had this tick where he’d nod along to his own words when he spoke, and he always had this matter-of-fact tone that would trick me into almost agreeing with him. He could say something like, “You know, the Mazda Miata is a hell of a sports car,” and for a fraction of a second, because I wasn’t really listening in the first place, I’d start to nod before catching myself.

To be fair, he was coaching the team and he had the final say, but it was the exact opposite tone that ought to be set for a meeting like that. I barely knew my team; I was not going to start cutting down players from other teams.

Glen also also found a way to work into the conversation that this group of all-stars was one win away from the World Series last year.

I heard “World Series” and my instinct was to think that must be good, but I caught myself.

I finally realized he was talking about capital ‘L’ Little League. Our players were 14 and 15 – they were are a couple years removed from the games ESPN airs from Williamsport. Turns out Little League has divisions all the way up to 16 year-olds.

As I mentioned in previous sections, after the traditional Little League (10-12 year olds) there are a bunch of leagues teenagers play in. Club teams also really start proliferating at this age, so I didn’t know whether or not the team’s previous success was impressive. Was it the equivalent of the NIT, the NCAA, or a made up tournament that’s an excuse to get 16 teams from across the country to fly to some random town for a week and stay at a Holiday Inn with a water park next to it*. I couldn’t be exactly sure where this league fell on the competition spectrum, but there was zero chance it represented anything close to top tier baseball for 14 and 15 year olds. There were some solid players, but there was just no way.

I will give Glen credit; the dude was not afraid. At one point pretty early on he told Bobby plainly that Bobby’s son wasn’t going to make the team. At first, Bobby agreed, saying that it was his kid’s fault anyway. He had struggled with his grades and hadn’t played ball until the league started.

It was a refreshing response that quickly soured. Within twenty minutes Bobby had pivoted his son’s lack of playing from a weakness to an untapped potential. He sprinkled in his case for Junior to make the team as the conversation meanered between roster decisions and last year’s team being, you know, one game away from the World Series.

If AJ was going to be the shortstop, then Junior might actually not be a bad choice at second since they played together already. They turn a nice double play.

He really is  just getting into form and was surely going to be better in the all-star tournament.

He does better against better pitching.

I’ll say one thing – you won’t be hearing from his dad if he’s sitting on the bench.

I sat back and enjoyed the show, noting that not one guy questioned whether or not Glen’s son was in fact the best catcher in the league. Glen’s son was a perfectly fine player, but I’d seen Bill (not our usual catcher) catch three innings for us in the game earlier that day and it was clear he was already a better catcher than Glen’s son, who also happened to be left-handed**.

In that moment, I failed. I should’ve asked the table, “Are we sure Glen’s son is the best catcher?” For all of the parents who spend their summers watching the coach’s kid hit lead-off, for all the kids who take their turn sitting out innings while the coach’s son somehow avoids it in all the meaningful games, for the grandparents who drive to god-knows-where to some god-awful tournament to watch their little lamb of love get two at-bats all tournament – for all of them, I should’ve asked.

I wimped out, and before long it was my turn to make a case for my guys. Maybe that’s the tax we pay the moms and dads that volunteer all of their extra time to coaching.

“Right off the bat, these are the guys on my team that I think earned it,” I said. “I’m not looking at what positions are up for grabs. These guys played best in the eight games I’ve coached.”

“OK, but we have specific needs.” Glen nodded along to his own words. “Honestly, we’re just looking to fill a couple spots.”

“I’m going to tell you who played well, and you can do what you want with that.”

I made my selections.

“How the hell is Larry not even up for a nomination?” Glen asked.

I knew it was coming. Larry’s home run earlier that day guaranteed this was coming. The kid made solid contact for the third time all season and all of a sudden I am an idiot for not nominating him for the all-star team.

As a catcher, he was passable in all areas but didn’t stand out in any. Glen’s left-handed son was a bit better than Larry behind the plate. Again, this was an assessment based off of 8 games and one practice, so I’m not saying Larry didn’t have talent or the ability to be a very good catcher. I’m just saying I hadn’t seen it at that point.  

There were the obvious choices – Ricky, Bill, Abe – and then there were the secondary guys – Jim, Hank, Steve.  I also nominated Mikey, a clear second tier guy. He was a versatile player that could give some innings on the mound, play multiple infield positions, and he’d always battle at the plate.  

Glen was surprised, then said flatly, “that’s great to hear.” He hemmed and hawed, and the imminent ‘but’ hung like a rain cloud ready to burst.

“We just had some problems with Mikey’s dad in previous years.”

There it was.

“What kind of problems?” I asked. The smell of bullshit was as strong as a bag of rotten lettuce.

“You know, wanting to know if his kid was going to play in a particular game. Complaining about playing time. Stuff like that.”

“I couldn’t tell you who Mikey’s dad is,” I said. “So no issues this year, for what it’s worth.”

Bobby jumped in. “I don’t have time for parents like that. Life’s too short.”

Was it a coincidence that Mikey could play second, just like Bobby’s son, as well as pitch?

“Plus, he’s not available from July 9-13, and that’s the first week of our tournament games, so…”

I conceded that it was Glen’s team, but I reiterated that Mikey could play a versatile role on a team that would be playing a bunch of games in a short amount of time, and that other players being considered would be missing time as well.

“What about Zack?” Glen asked.

Zack was a left-handed hitter who always wore an Orioles t-shirt under his jersey. You could see all the tools and the mentality to be a key player on a solid team, and he was the only one to show up for a voluntary batting practice session earlier that week, but there was no way around it – he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat in the month we’d been playing. His hitting was obviously correctable – he wrapped his bat on the load and landed on a straight front leg on his stride –  but there was simply no way he earned a spot on an all-star team this season.

His father, a really nice guy who saved my ass by keeping the book during the games, just so  happened to be the on the league board.

I articulated Zack’s struggles at the plate and his lack of a distinct position. Glen told me he could see Zack play the same role he did on last year’s team (the team that was one game away from the World Series) as a pinch bunter and runner for late-game situations.

I held back a laugh. I came into the meeting confident it would be some measure of a farce, but it was at this moment – the moment when I was being sold the merits of a pinch bunter on an all-star team – when I realized exactly how much of a waste of time this was.

It wasn’t long after when the waiter came by and asked if anyone needed another beer. The group hesitated.

“I’d love another Lagunitas,” I said. The other dads, looking for an excuse to say yes, joined in. If I was going to sit through this meeting, I might as well have another beer while it happens.

Pic c/o Jim Lang. The Lions Club All-Star Tournament was an honor. A self-contained weekend tournament at the Chaska Athletic Park in Chaska, MN (one of the best fields in the entire state, pictured below). If you look closely, you’ll see a bleach job under my cap. 

 

No, baseball is not a meritocracy, but it has the same shape as one.

Here’s the truth: baseball is a meritocracy for Tier One players. Their skills outshine the politics, cliques, and all other forms of youth sports poison. There’s never a debate about Tier One players like Ricky, Bill, Abe.

The meritocracy crumbles when we get to those Tier Two players – Mikey, Hank, Jim, Zack, Steve. Adults start pulling up bullshit about parents (not the kids) or thin rationale like pinch running or bunting ability. It’s pathetic to hear an adult use flawed logic to crap on a kid.

What about putting Mikey on the team based on how he played this season instead of keeping him off the team because of what his dad did in previous seasons?

Put in the right situation, Tier Two players make good teams great. Put in the wrong situation, Tier Two players quit before high school.

Hovering above all of this is a universal sports truth people forget all of the time. Tier One kids rarely stay Tier One throughout their teenage years. Tier Two players can become Tier One over the course of a single season. Kids fizzle. They grow at different times. Their interests change. Coaches – good and bad – will label a kid, and that will stick to him far longer than it should.

I was lucky enough to be taught the expectation of success when I was ten years old. If I did my job, then I’d be in a moment to succeed. We would practice those moments, and success would come more times than not. This is the single most valuable piece of baseball I carry with me to this day. When parents and coaches start horsetrading for a meaningless all-star team, they are messing with that equation of success for the Tier Two guys, and that’s where meritocracy is most needed***.

The selection meeting was an odd way to cap an otherwise great week. Joe pitched his ass off for four innings in a close game. To see a young lefty like that pitch backwards – using his off-speed stuff to get ahead early in the count, then freeze hitters with a well-placed, two-strike fastball – is uncommon. He knew he had something special going, and it was a treat to cheer him on as his dad watched from over my shoulder.

I was able to work one-on-one in the cage with Zack for an hour on Friday and actually coach. Before that hitting session I had wondered if Zack was losing interest in the game and going through the motions a bit, but I learned that he was just down because he was struggling at the plate. He was there to get better, and he left the cages with a much improved swing that day.

I got to see Bill catch, and immediately realized he was supposed to be catching all along.

Those were the moments that mattered to me. Those are the reasons you want to coach, but I know that making the all-star team mattered to the kids, and that’s why that meeting was the worst part of coaching this past summer.  

***

Larry hit a bomb to left on the sandlot-esque field in the game before all-star selections. Guess who’s name came up at the all-star meeting? Talk about recency bias. 

Let’s assume for a moment that this season started differently. Instead of receiving a roster a few days before the first game, let’s pretend there was a tryout, and I filled the role of Kent Anderson playing catch with kids. What kind of players would I look for? How would I assemble a team at the fourteen and fifteen year-old level?

First off, I would need a small roster. Give me twelve players, then everyone – players, coaches, parents – knows that all the players are going to get plenty of time on the field. I eliminate a source of stress and awkward conversations right away. If the kid makes the team, the kid’s going to play a lot. I never understood having a big roster at the youth level.

I’d put together a team of guys that can pick it in the field and pitch over guys who can swing it. A team can manufacture more than enough runs to win at the high school level. I want a team that takes away hits, extra bases, and runs.

I’d look for versatile players, which is obvious when you consider I’d only have three guys on my bench. I’d coach them to be very good at one position and at least know what’s going on at a second position. Substitutions are way overused in the youth game (no doubt due in part to rosters that are too big). It is so often the case that baseball players get locked into one position at an early age and never learn how to play somewhere else. Just because a kid caught when he was eleven does not mean he should be the de facto catcher when he’s fifteen. This rigidity has never made sense to me. This also makes for a more interesting summer for players. Specialization in youth sports is boring and absurd.  

Aside from starting pitching, I’d need five or six kids that can throw strikes and give me an inning here or there. Give me a guy with a live arm and we can teach him to spot a fastball and mix-in a changeup. 

My three best defensive players would play catcher, shortstop, and centerfield, regardless of where they played in previous seasons. I also would not stick a liability at first base. A first baseman can save a lot of extra bases at the high school level.

We would be the aggressors in all phases of the game, especially on the basepaths. We would make the other team execute under pressure.

At the high school level (call it ages 14-18), the game’s currency is bases. A walk equals an extra base (more if there are already base runners) for the offense and against the defense. An error, a missed cutoff, taking the wrong angle on a ball in the gap – these all lead to extra bases. Sure, there are teams out there that can rip at the plate, but the vast majority of games are won in part due to the giving or preventing of extra bases.   

With that in mind, I’d keep track of the following stats:

  • Team, Individual On Base Percentage (OBP)
  • Team, Individual Fielding Percentage
  • Team, Individual Strikeouts (hitters)
  • Walks + Hits / Innings Pitched (WHIP)
  • Team +/- (think of it like hockey or basketball)
    • Team Extra Bases Given (errors, walks, missed cut-offs, etc.)
    • Team Extra Bases Taken

In practices, I would channel Tony and Jay and we’d get into the rhythm of reps: double-plays in the infield, tracking fly balls in the outfield. Tee work, soft toss, cage work. I’d like for each player to get fifty swings and fifty defensive reps every practice. I’d channel Kent and drill team defense until it became a choreographed dance with all nine players moving based on where the ball is hit. We’d also make sure to take BP on the field at least once a week and crank the tunes loud, because there is nothing better than a pocket full of sunflower seeds, jamming to some tunes and shagging batting practice.

Practices would never be longer than ninety minutes.

And in the games, I’d take Coach Holm’s lead and trust my players. I’d manage the game, but I’d enjoy the hell out of having a an up close view of them taking control of a ball game.

Maybe it was dumb luck, or maybe Glen was nice to the new coaches afterall, because if I was able to put together a team, it wouldn’t look all that different from the team I was able to coach this year. – PAL

Read Part V: “The Other Coach”

Footnotes:

* Per the Little League site: “The culmination of the International Tournament is the Senior League Baseball World Series, featuring teams from around the world. All expenses for the teams advancing to the World Series (travel, meals and housing) are paid by Little League International.”

**Here’s a great article that attempts to explain why there are zero left-handed catchers in Major League Baseball.

***Our team had 6 players play on the All-Star Team. Mikey was not one of them. Larry and Zack did make the team, which won the Northern California tournament before losing out in the Western Regional.

****After reading Part II (link below) Jay texted Tony and me the following:

..I would literally be staring at the clock in my  office willing time to move faster so I could bolt out a 5:00 and get to practice or a game. Loved every second I coached that team. Loved the way Tony managed a game and prepared practice to maximize time. One of my favorite memories was bribing you guys to be better bunters using Big Macs in concentric circles with $1, $5, $10 distances to get you guys to focus. Will never forget going to McDonald’s with Tony to order 22 Big Macs…

Catch up on the previous sections: 

Part I, Part II, Part III

On the Force or the Tag: Part III

On The Force or the Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. Read the other sections: 

 


Photo by Brent Hoegh. The dugout can be a funny, odd place. My college team partakes in the 2 out, 2-2 count routine. I’m sitting on the bucket with the catcher’s gear. 

Joe and Ricky, my two left-handed pitchers, were slouched in the dugout chatting during the middle innings of a blowout. Our team was on defense, so the dugout was vacant. I sat at the end of the dugout closest home plate watching our catcher, Larry, frame pitches. If there was one skill set I could coach, it was the catcher position. We were in our second weekend of games, and I had yet to give Larry a single note.

After the lefties tired themselves of guessing what pitch our pitcher would throw next, Joe offered up this nugget of perspective to Ricky.

“Remember when we, like, used to care about every play?”

I turned my entire body sideways to observe the oblivious lefties.

Ricky acquiesced with a nod, but he cared. Joe cared when he pitched, sometimes. But to Ricky, competition was instinctual. On the mound, he would self-diagnose and tweak his delivery. In right field he would remind the first baseman that he could be throwing to first on a sharp single to right. Still, it was easier for Ricky to agree with Joe than admit he cared, which makes sense when you remember these dudes were fifteen.

“I care about every play,” I interjected. “And – not for nothing – this is the dumbest conversation I’ve ever heard in a dugout. Your coach is ten feet from you!”

They chuckled and gave spare tire apologies that were just enough to carry them out of the current predicament.

I laughed a little, too. I wasn’t a robot coaching the team, and this wasn’t military training. If nothing else, it was a genuine moment in a lopsided game. Every exchange a coach has with players can’t be aggressive, binary, win-or-you’re-a-loser coachspeak. For one, that’s b.s., and kids have precise bullshit detectors. Also, a coach can’t demand more from a team without genuinely knowing and caring about the individuals. Kids will tune out a coach that speaks at them, and they will hesitate to give more to a coach who doesn’t know them.

That is all true, but there was another truth jammed between Joe’s words: there is nothing more damaging to a young baseball team than a blowout win. Nothing.

Do you know what happens when you’re leading a game by 10+ runs? Players stop competing. Hitters don’t sprint to first on a dropped third strike. Pitchers have to be told to step off the rubber because they forget to pitch from the stretch with runners on base. Outfielders miss their cutoff man. Players stop competing, and lazy-ass baseball ensues. Lazy baseball is so much more contagious than competitive baseball. Lazy baseball is boring to play, unbearable to watch, and infuriating to coach.

It should come as no surprise that we lost our next game*.

***

Players learn nothing from winning big. In the vast majority of youth games, a blowout only reinforces what everyone at the game knew before the first pitch: one team has more ability and skill than the other team. A blowout fools kids, sometimes coaches as well, into believing their skill is more important to their success than their approach, which is an idiotic interpretation of success in youth sports.

The correlation between skill and success is crap for everyone, in all facets of life, save maybe a hundred true geniuses throughout history. Hell, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is essentially a book about minimizing this 1:1 correlation. The other side effect of skill-first thinking is that it tamps down any possibility for a team to realize its full potential.

Coaching skills isn’t hard. To be able to get players to consistently execute baseball fundamentals is a prerequisite for any coach (I would hope). There are hundreds of drills cleverly designed to correct technique and improve a skill. If a hitter opens up the front shoulder on every pitch, then try reverse soft toss. If a catcher’s throw down to second misses wide, then draw a line in the dirt from the back corner of home plate to between the catcher’s feet and tell him to make sure his lead foot lands on the line when he makes the throw.

Technique doesn’t even have to be explained; if the results change a player’s outcome for the better then he will commit to it immediately.

To coach approach, however, is to change the way a group of players thinks about the game. Results are rarely immediate when coaching approach, and it’s harder to correlate a shift in thinking with a positive change in the individual baseball stats, e.g. batting average, fielding percentage, earned run average**. We’re talking about establishing a team culture here, about maximizing potential, which is how I define success. It’s a much higher degree of difficulty, and a hell of a lot more fulfilling for all involved.

My approach is to “win the inning”. This is not an original concept – the late University of Texas coach Augie Garrido has an entire documentary about it (any baseball nut will love this). Jay, my youth coach, was a big “win the inning” believer, as was Coach Holm in college.

Quite simply, to win the inning asks players to think of the game as one inning – one turn at the plate, and one turn in the field. The seven-inning or nine-inning game the rest of the folks are counting as a game doesn’t matter if your team can focus the inning at hand.

Win the inning is about making a habit out of competing moment to moment. It requires every player on the team to seek out what he can control and contribute in the moment immediately before him. For younger players (under about ten), win the inning is a fun way to get keep the game fresh, but this is a philosophy at its core.

Making a spectacular catch in the outfield. Hustling to backup the player trying to make that spectacular catch in the event he misses it. Hitting a two-out homerun. Beating out a grounder for a hit, which brings the homerun hitter to the plate. All of these are winning plays. While only two of them require talent, a coach has to get players to believe that the hustle plays are valued as much as the spectacular plays. They all more clearly contribute to winning an inning, but the essential, unspectacular plays get forgotten when a team reflects on seven or nine innings as a single entity.

After an inning is over, everyone resets. Start over and forget what just happened, good or bad. By minimizing the scope, you maximize the importance of the details. In those details you will find a team’s potential realized. In those details is where build a culture.

Getting kids to buy into this approach is hard, because – newsflash – we do keep score in seven and nine inning increments, folks keep statistics, and long-term improvement is hard to demonstrate in a short season. Players know when they’re kicking a team’s ass and when they’re getting their ass kicked. It’s right there on the scoreboard. Again, you’re asking them to redefine success, while knowing everyone else in their life – parents, future coaches, baseballreference.com – measures success by how many hits they had or how many innings of shutout ball they pitched.

There’s no guarantee you’ll get a team to buy-in on, but it’s worth trying. Why? Because “win the inning” is the more fun version of baseball. Teams that learn how to compete inning-by inning win against teams that have more skill. Stealing a win feels the best. Teams that expect and value everyone’s contribution create a more inclusive environment. I don’t know about you, but work is more fun when everyone is pumped to be there.

No one wants to play the game where everyone stands around watching the one stud throwing a shutout and driving in a couple runs. That shit is boring for everyone besides the aforementioned stud who will likely flame out before he can legally buy a tin of tobacco.  

Also, the games of our youth we remember are not the blowouts, and we don’t remember our batting average (god, I really hope none of you remember your youth stats); The games we remember are the games we stole.

***

By the second week of the season I was able to get an initial feel for all of the players on the team. These idiots were loveable. I loved how Hank never stopped talking to the pitcher and infielders between every pitch. I loved how the twins Chris and Tyler would track down a sure double in the same way and make it look so casual. I loved how Bill fumed when he missed an opportunity to drive a couple runs in with two outs. These were good kids with a little bullshit to them. Just the way it ought to be.

Watching a game from inside the backstop and interacting with young players was like being home. I belong on a baseball field more so than any place else.

***

Jeff Holm, Coach, didn’t recruit me to play ball at Augustana (2018 National Champs). I was on the North Shore of Oahu when the coach that had recruited me called and told me he was taking a job at Kansas. My sister and brother-in-law were house-sitting for this big-time lawyer, and I remember looking out at the Pacific Ocean between Pipeline and Sunset Beach from the kitchen of this quintessential beach house and wondering what the hell this meant for me. Then I remembered I was in Hawaii for the summer learning how to surf the small summer waves and resolved to worry about the whole baseball thing when I returned to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Back row, L-R: Al Shaffer Kevin Wiessner, Sam Everson, Ben Iverson, Troy Wunderlich, and recent Augie Sports Hall of Fame inductee Owen Hoegh. Front row, L-R: Ryan Nett, Phil Lang, Aaron Barber, Coach Jeff Holm, Travis Pugliese.

Knowing what I know now, the idea that Coach was the random guy brought in to replace the guy who actually recruited me is hard to chalk up to simply good fortune.

Coach quickly became a mentor. First and foremost, he would like you to know that, despite being a squat fella with a penchant for DMD (Diet Mountain Dew to the uninitiated), he was a killer in the racquetball court and not a bad basketball player.

In all seriousness, he showed me the character and selflessness enthusiasm requires. Being jaded is so easy, so cliché. Coaching at the college level is flatout different from high school. Obviously the skill level is higher, but more importantly a college coach is leading a team of players who know the game, and many of them have an idea of what their approach to the game is. College players are eager to get better, but set in their ways. They won’t buy into a culture blindly.

Some initially mistook Coach’s enthusiasm for one-dimensional cheerleading, but he understood both the game and the importance of building a relationship with his players. Even by 2002, the Bobby Knight days of drill sergeant coaches was on the outs, and Coach understood that.

Teammate, roommate, left-handed pitcher and now coach Ryan “Gramps” Nett put it this way:

Coaching myself, I think he was ahead of the curve on quite a few things in terms of new school ideas. (1) Relationship building with players was really important to him, understanding each player and letting us know he genuinely cared. (2) Showing players teammates worth. I think of the guys he could have cut and didn’t because he wanted everyone to understand providing opportunities is important. Whether they play or not, they’re still worthy of being part of the team. (3) I think now in the age of “win at all cost” he was ahead of wanting us to compete and not worry about wins and losses. That the little things in the game will carry us through a successful year but also hopefully a successful life…Always brought his boys around, enjoying a good laugh during the game, asking about girlfriends, family, classes. Kids now feel a lot of pressure, and with him it was only the pressure I put on myself and that says a lot because he was relying on 18-22 year-olds to be successful for his livelihood. I think it’s pretty special to show that trust in kids.

I spent two summers in Sioux Falls. Coach and I would workout and go for runs in the morning (I miss that summer college schedule!). We talked about baseball exactly never on those runs. He cared about me as a person, and that made me compete even harder for him as a player.

Augustana University had less than 2,000 students at the time I was enrolled, and we competed in the now defunct North Central Conference with big state schools that have since gone D-I like North Dakota State, University of Nebraska, Omaha, Minnesota State, and South Dakota State. In his second year at the helm, Coach led us to Augustana’s first men’s team conference championship in school history.

Anyone that played for Coach knows that he has a terrible habit of yelling out really lame phrases after the opponent did something good. The best/worst example of this was when an opposing team would hit a home run.

As the hitter was still rounding the bases, Coach would shout, “Just lets us score more!” The mere memory makes me shutter. It was such a Little League coach thing to say.

I hate to admit it, because – again, so lame – but the sentiment was right. Coach was shoving us into competing in the next moment, even while the last moment had yet to finish. He was friendly, but he didn’t care about being your friend, or being cool; he cared about you. He was a dork, but he’d kick your ass when it came to competing. He was always pushing you to the next moment, and we competed to win the next inning, never doubting he had our best interests in mind.

I think about how Coach would have handled that blowout when Ricky and Joe pondered the importance of every play, and I think about what Garrido tells his players after a loss – “This isn’t about some goddamn game. This is about our lives. Don’t you get it?”

I agree with Garrido. It is about our lives. Joe and Ricky are talking about a game, but long after the games are over, will they compete at work, will they make the hustle plays in their relationships? I wonder if they would’ve heard Garrido’s wisdom if he was screaming it at them, but I know they’d hear it coming from Coach. – PAL

Up next: Part IV – “An Insider’s Account of An All-Star Selection Meeting”

Footnotes:

*For a breakdown of how we lost, check out Part I of the series.

**a positive change will happen to individual stats, but it might take more time and opportunities than a youth season presents

Catchup on the series here: 

Part I

Part II

On The Force or On The Tag: Part II

Read Part I of the series here.

Read Part III of the series here

On The Force Or On The Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. 

This pic doesn’t do the field justice. Rickey Henderson Field is a treat. 

Goddamn, do I love being on a baseball field. It didn’t take very long into our first practice of the season for that realization to slap me across the face.

There is a rhythm to a baseball practice that folds perfectly into a long summer evening. Its signature characteristic is held in a pause, like that moment before a rocking chair returns forward, when momentum gathers. The pause is in every fundamental phase of the game. You can feel it in the moment between when a pitcher sets and starts his delivery. It’s right there, after an infielder releases a throw across the diamond to first to complete a double play. It’s with the outfielder, too, as he waits for the fly ball to drop after he tracked it down, his feet set to catch and throw back to the infield in one motion.

Once the techniques have been explained and strategy and positioning has become instinct, baseball practices come down to repeating the moments immediately preceding and following these pauses. That’s where the rhythm comes alive. 

But finding this rhythm with a team takes some time together. It takes – you guessed it – practice, and if there was one thing made clear to me when I had met with Glen, the league coordinator and umpire from part 1 of this series, it was that this league wasn’t about practice. Quite plainly, this league was about players getting in the requisite amount of games in order for the best of them to qualify to play in All-Star tournaments. The coach of said All-Star team: Glen.

A ten-game season with no more than a practice or two with fifteen year olds who weren’t playing travel ball (as I understood at the time)?  I hauled the jerseys and equipment bag to the back field at Caldecott, genuinely worried that I was about to coach kids who had no interest in the game but had agreed to play one more season only after their parents insisted that they “had to do something this summer” or get a job.

And what All-Star league were we even talking about here? It’s hard to keep track of all of the leagues in youth baseball. There are leagues named after Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken; there are leagues associated with veteran organizations (the V.F.W., American Legion); there’s AAU and the post-Little League divisions of Little League. And then there’s club ball.

Had I been asked to coach a team, or was about to oversee a five-week tryout?  

I hung the uniforms on the fence, noting the the absence of uniformity in youth sports. But that was OK, because I also had an unused, homemade fungo bat that a woodworking buddy of mine had given to me.

Hand on the bible – I was as excited to use this new fungo as I was to meet the players. Hitting a grounders and fly balls with a wooden fungo puts the soul at ease. Some garden. Some meditate. Some drink. Give me hitting fungos for my mental health.

As the first of the players meandered back to the field, I knew that I had to make some concessions immediately. I was a stranger – to the players and the league – and this was casual baseball. Five weeks, ten games. We didn’t have time to start from beginning on anything. I wasn’t building a program, but I didn’t just want to only fill in a lineup card either. I would have to find that middle ground as I went.

The view of the San Francisco Bay from up near the Caldecott Tunnel on a summer evening is postcard material. It’s one of those moments that washes away any gripes about the cost of living, the tech soul-sucking, and general superiority complex that come with the Bay Area. The sun inches down into the Pacific and behind San Francisco far off on the horizon, and you fall for the beauty of it all for the ten thousandth time.

The fields at Caldecott, however, were dreadful. They were depressing, dry, deserted landfills of bad hops and knee injuries. There were those little colored flags the power company uses to indicate buried wired littering the outfield. I was told that a water pipe had burst up by the fields, which led to a dispute between I believe Parks & Rec Department and the Utility District. As they argued, every blade of grass on the field had shriveled and died, and every gopher within a 100-mile radius helped tunnel out the entire outfield. The fields were beyond repair. A million dollar view wasted over a busted water pipe.

Beautiful view. Bad photo. Dangerous field. 

It was with that marvel of a backdrop and on that lawsuit of a field where I met six of my players. The Warriors were playing in the NBA Finals that night, so the other eight guys on the team didn’t show. It was an optional practice. Like I said, casual baseball.

  • Larry  (C, P)
  • Ricky (LHP, 1B)
  • Abe (OF, P)
  • Steve (3B, P)
  • Bill (Utility, P)
  • Hank (SS, P)

In their minds they were all pitchers, anyway. They saw the new coach as an opportunity get an inning or two in before I would realize they were imposters. As far as I could tell, we had one pitcher for sure: Ricky, the tall lefty with a whip of an arm*.

It didn’t take long for my concerns about the players’ collective interest to dissipate. I knew we were going to be just fine halfway through our warmup game of catch. These guys knew what they were doing. They weren’t there out of obligation. They enjoyed playing the game – it was evident in how they carried themselves. They knew each other, and they at least knew to play catch in the outfield. I could work with this!

We had one hour, which is 45 minutes after warming up, and we were going to spend it getting as many swings, field as many grounders, and shag as many fly balls as possible.  There were two options of how we could approach the practice: reps or situations, and we simply didn’t have time to work on situational defenses like bunt coverages, first-and-third plays, and tandem cuts. Hell, we needed to review the most obvious signs for bunt (belt), steal (sleeve), and hit-and-run (both sleeves) before we could to worry about middle infield read plays.

I hit fungos with my new bat and threw batting practice in the cage. It was sublime to be back in that paused rhythm – it was in the batting cage and across the infield. 

crack hit a grounder

hop hop hop

field grounder, set

throw then catch

crack hit a grounder

hop hop hop

field grounder, set

throw then catch

 

Give me a Gatorade, a bag of seeds, and a five-gallon bucket of balls and leave me to it. I’ll throw batting practice until it’s too dark to see.  

I should point out that there were two other volunteer coaches on this team: Jeff and Paul. Like me, they were in their 30s (maybe younger) and had no prior affiliation with the league. Super smart guys and enthusiastic, but I don’t know how much baseball they played growing up. Quite honestly, a they had a hard time throwing a baseball smoothly, they had an even harder time hitting fungos, and I would find out at our first game that neither of them knew how to keep a scorebook. It was never discussed, but I just assumed head coaching duties from the jump.

Paul couldn’t make the first practice, so Jeff (a lefty) and I switched off throwing BP and hitting infield/outfield to the guys. With six players, it worked perfectly: two guys would hit in the cage while the other four players took grounders and fly balls.

I was standing behind the protective L-screen in the cage when I looked over to see Jeff choking halfway up my brand new, homemade fungo. He was hitting balls off the end of the bat. He was hitting handle shots. I was sure that the next swing would be the last and the thin-handled bat would crack, breaking my heart along with it. I would find out at the end of practice that Jeff had popped a blister while using the fungo. His blood was splattered up the handle.

The Matt Scanlan fungo (@scatmanlan), complete with some blood specs up at the top of the taped handle. 

Bleeding blisters and terrible field aside, the practice was a complete success. There was some talent on the team, but I was more encouraged by the personalities amongst those six player. I wouldn’t say any of them were confident – a little cocky, sure, but what fifteen year-old is truly confident? Instead, they wanted to be confident. They weren’t afraid to ask me about the Warriors-Cavs NBA Finals, or crack a sarcastic joke. If guys missed a grounder, they asked for another one before I moved onto the next guy.

I could work with that.

I had come to the practice worried about all the crap outside of the lines. The act of running the most basic of practices reminded me what matters is throwing BP and hitting grounders and, even if for just a moment, finding that rhythm with the players. I also left knowing what I could effectively coach in ten games: I would reinforce that desire in them to be confident, and do so enthusiastically.

***

Coach the practice, manage the game.

Show me a coach yelling out adjustments to the hitter in between pitches and I’ll show you a guy that could never hit or can’t remember what it feels like to be overmatched at the plate. Show me a coach that thinks the secret to getting a kid to throw strikes is to yell at him to throw strikes, and I’ll show you a team that’s tuned out its coach.

As a whole, a baseball game is slow, but it’s won or lost in moments of complex intricacy and bursts of speed. A player has to be loose, quick, and precise at the same time. In other words, baseball is are about reacting. Consider all of the body movement that goes into a pitching delivery. Every part of the body – from toes to fingertips – needs to be in sync in order to hit a specific portion of the strike zone. A pitcher might have a mantra, but he’s not thinking through every speck of his delivery on every pitch

Or consider the timing and hand-eye coordination needed to, as Ted Williams put it, hit a round ball with a round bat squarely. Then imagine trying to do that while the coach yells about watching for the curveball moments before the pitch.  

Someone can’t simultaneously react and think about how to react. The how – the coaching and instruction – takes place before the game. You study before the test. During the game, a coach manages the situation, and players react. Bad coaches coach during the game.

Before our first game, I promised the guys I wouldn’t coach during the game. We could talk situations between innings, but I would not instruct the players on pitching or hitting. I remember calmly making that point, but I was so damn excited.

To begin, Rickey Henderson Field (pictured at the top of this post) was the opposite of our practice field. Some of the real heros of youth baseball are the grouchy maintenance guys or the retired volunteers who make it their daily mission to maintain a beautiful ballfield. These fellas are uptight about things like properly folding a tarp, but one cannot argue with the results. It’s more than worth it in exchange for the joy of playing on a diamond with a lush green infield and a clay mound. Buy your local version of this guy a beer the next time you see him. Get him a nice cigar.

I had seen six of our players at practice the night before, but amongst all of them I had the worst idea of who should play where and bat when in the lineup. These guys had been playing against each other or together for years, so I handed the scorebook to the the first player to show up – Mikey – and told him to fill it out. We won 11-0, so I think Mikey had it right.

We made one error and walked no more than four batters. Five extra base runners is not that bad for a youth team. The other team gave us ten extra base runners – five walks and five errors. 

I didn’t do much in that game. There’s not a ton to manage when you’re up big and your pitchers are throwing strikes. Best thing a coach can do in that situation is grab a handful of seeds, let the guys play, and keep track of a good thing and a thing to work on for each player.  

One player in particular stood out. Bill pitched the first four innings and hit cleanup. His body was growing faster than he could keep up with, and every part of his game had some grunt to it. My kind of player. He went up to the plate to drive something. He toed the rubber to strike the batter out. I was embarrassed that it took me – a lifelong catcher – until the last game of the season to realize this guys was a born catcher. He had the mentality for it, and most guys don’t. 

The second game of the weekend was far less of a lean back affair. We were down to the rich kids with coordinated bat bags until our last at-bat. Strikeouts absolutely killed us, especially with runners on base. You have to make the opponent make a play in the field. Again, the odds of a team fielding a ball, making an accurate throw, and catching that throw in time to get a runner hustling out of the box cannot be more than sixty – maybe seventy percent – in youth baseball.

It was a close game, and I felt my old player juices goings. There was some chirping going on from the other team’s bench as Ricky was dealing, striking out pretty much everyone in his relief appearance. It was remarkable their bench was talking shit while their teammates struck out. Also remarkable was how easily I let this chirping get to me and how quickly I forgot that I was twenty-one years older than the players.

After he ended the inning with another strikeout, I met Ricky at the foul line with a fist bump and more or less told him that’s how you shove it up their asses.

I have no problem with the sentiment of my message to Ricky. That is how you shut up a bench. The way I communicated it was something else – that was me chasing a feeling of being a player. I loved those moments of friction back in the day, but those are the types of games-within-the-game that players own. Coaches need not apply.  

Of course there are times when a coach showing his competitive fire can wake a team up. This was just not one of those times.

It wasn’t until Jim’s two-out, opposite field double off of the fence that we got a run across. It was a 3-1 count, so he sat on fastball. Most impressive is that he didn’t try to pull the outside pitch on a 3-1 count. Not many teenagers are looking for something out over the plate to drive the other way. The other team called timeout after his hit, so we were able to chat quick chat.

I asked “how did that feel?”

He shook his head, smiled, and said “unbelievable!”

Hell yeah, it did.

We ended up winning the game 5-4, scoring three runs in the bottom of the seventh thanks to two errors, two hit batsman, and two walks. You can’t make this up, folks.

I left the field knowing I had a good group of guys. I also left the field shocked. Not one of our players at the first two games knew how to keep a scorebook**. This would not, could not continue. 

Most of all, I left thinking about Tony Lang and Jay Rabeni (my brother and brother-in-law). These guys made coaching look fun.

***

Joy, enthusiasm, and garbage bag jackets. Tony Lang (first coach on the left) and Jay Rabeni (second coach from the right). These two kept the game fun at all times. Yours truly (first row, first on the left) was still mourning the end of of Kirby Puckett’s playing career, as indicated by the ’34’ on my hat. Dave, Sr. is the super tall pitching coach and dad to Big Dog (the super tall kid). John Kurtis (last coach on the right), older brother of Jay (middle row, first from the right) also helped out that year. 

Looking back on it, Tony and Jay were just pups in their mid-twenties when they coached our team for three years growing up (ages 13-15). If wealth was measured in zest, then I haven’t come across wealthier men than Tony and Jay when they coached.

They were great because they loved it as much as us players did. When Tom Stanoch would glide over and make yet another diving play in centerfield, it was all Jay could do to keep himself from running out there and giving him a high five in the middle of the game. When Jay Kurtis and Elmer made another double-play look routine, Tony was pimping it on their behalf from the dugout, saying something along the lines of “too easy.”

I think back to our practices, and it was all about reps. About that rhythm. Infielders would take grounders for half an hour, outfielders would be working on their angles until dusk had turned to just plain night. Hitting was an assembly line of drills. We would alternate between soft-toss, reverse toss, back toss, two-tee drill, and live pitching in the cage. Dave, Sr., the manager and dad to Big Dog, would be concocting his next Tom Seaver lecture/demonstration with the pitchers off on the side. And so it went, the same practice, more or less, for three years. It was the best.

Photo courtesy of Matt Lang. A lot time spent in these cages growing up.

There were a lot of elements that went into making that team the most fun I ever had playing baseball. The parents genuinely liked each other and were swept up in Tony and Jay’s enthusiasm just like us player. The players appreciated each and every guy on the roster. We were’t all best friends, but we were a team. It also helped that we were just young enough so that no one was really worried about the next step. But at the center of this was Tony and Jay’s enthusiasm. Everyone could see how much they loved being there. It was infectious.

But here’s the thing – as passionate and enthusiastic as they were – neither Jay nor Tony ever lost sight of the game’s relative importance. It was always a game. It was game to win, to improve, and to take pride in; but it was always a game.

A couple stories come to mind when I think about them as coaches.

Timmy Fisher is on the mound pitching at Concordia Academy. I’m catching, and I had caught Timmy since we were in Little League on Kent’s team. At that point I know him as a pitcher backwards and forwards. When Tim had it going, he just found outs. For all of you Giants fans, he had a little Johnny Cueto to his game with the variations to the delivery, which is hilarious when you consider Timmy was fifteen.

When Timmy didn’t have it going, he’d let anything distract him, whether it was the umpire’s zone, the state of the mound, a button on his jersey. Timmy also didn’t understand the notion of a filter. He acted on how he felt 100% of the time.

So the game at Concordia is not going well and Timmy’s throwing a bit of a tantrum on the mound. Tony comes out to pull him. Timmy doesn’t even wait for Tony to get to the top of the mound. Instead, he drops the ball and walks off, passing Tony on his way to the dugout. A stern conversation in the dugout no doubt followed, but I remember Tony laughing about it shorty after the incident. It was a such a Timmy reaction, and only he could make that funny. Tony didn’t take it as an affront to his coaching. Timmy disrespected him – yes – but Tony knew it wasn’t about him. Timmy was just pissed off and he hadn’t learned how to sit in that without doing something stupid. 

Jay was the same way, too. He got into Eric Wikstrom one time for not sliding into third on a close call. I mean, Jay was in Wik’s earhole, rated R style, giving him everything he had, but I can’t imagine Wik ever questioning whether or not Jay liked him. Not for a second.

I know they taught us technique and refined our approach, and thinking back on it I am astonished at the amount of time they gave to that team (we must have played 35 games a summer at least), but no specific tips remain as clear as much the joy. The joy we had playing for them and the the joy they had coaching us.

I come across players and parents from that team every now and again when I’m back home. Hell, Jim Sabean, Jesse’s dad, recently knocked on my parents’ door one afternoon while he was working on a power outage down the street. The memories from those summers always come up. They come up quickly, and always with a smile. – PAL 

Read Part I of the series here.

Read Part III of the series here

A couple notes here (as if I haven’t written enough): 

In the overview of this series, I make it a point to call out the importance of my having no prior affiliation with any of the players and the league in which I coached. Obviously, that was not the case with Tony and Jay. You might think I’m cutting it both ways here, but I do think there is something different in an older sibling coaching. What I know is true, and what I know the players and parents from that team will tell you is that Tony and Jay were there for all of the kids.

I also want to call out that Tony and I spent my entire youth in the cage and working on defensive catching drills. Jay would throw to me, and so would my other brother Matt. All of them were so generous with their time, because all I wanted to do was go up to that cage and hit. This series isn’t about the bond of brothers over baseball. Maybe that’s what I should write about next, but this series is about coaching teams, not just me. – PAL

Additional footnotes:

*Ricky told me later in the that he could catch. My response was he had two responsibilities on this team: throw cheddar and hit nukes (this came right after the LSU’s Todd Peterson made headlines by lying to his coach about hitting in high school in order to get an at bat in a key college game)

** Hank, who wasn’t at the first two games, did know how to keep a book and restored a shred of my faith in young baseball players.

 

On The Force Or On The Tag: Part I

On The Force Or On The Tag is a 5-part series recounting my season as a volunteer baseball coach in a city league to which I had no prior affiliation. Along the way, I’ll connect my coaching experiences this season to memories from the four best coaches I had growing up. Kent Anderson, Tony Lang (my brother), Jay Rabeni (my brother-in-law), and Jeff Holm continue to influence how I approach my day and my life. They represent the best-case scenario of youth sports, from Little League to college. This is my thank you to them.

The names of the players, coaches, and family members from the team I coached have been changed. 

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

In the third year of Little League, our team changed from the Indians to the Red Sox. Kent Anderson is second from the right in the back row. I am first from the right in the front row.


We had the bases loaded, two outs, and down one run in the bottom of the 7th (the last inning in high school baseball rules). Mike, a utility player with a decent stick, was at the plate. In that moment, there was nothing I wanted more as a coach, as even a baseball fan, than for Mike to experience a walk-off hit.

I wanted him to square up the pitch and send a line drive into the outfield. The ballpark would pause in silence while that ball floated like a satellite. The infielders would only be able to turn, look up, and wait. Mike would be tracking the ball as he glided over first base, knowing that his run meant nothing in the last inning of a one-run game. The other base runners would be crouched, suspended between bases. The home plate umpire would stand up with his mask in his right hand as the blood delayed its return behind his knees. Parents would sit up straight. In that moment everyone, everything, waits for a baseball to skip across the outfield grass. Only then can chaos resume.

That’s the picture I held in my mind standing just outside the coach’s box on the third base side of the diamond as Mike started his at-bat.

There aren’t many feelings in this world as pure and good as that one. Looking up from Yosemite Valley for the first time, realizing you’ve met your future husband or wife, the first moment of parenthood, I assume – I’ll grant you these are bigger, more important feelings. But if we’re only measuring purity, then a walk-off hit is right up there with the best of them. I’ll put my next paycheck on it.

Leading up to Mike’s at bat, this particular game had the tempo of a dirge. No youth game, in any sport, for any reason, should take three hours. Each team had tried to lose several times by donating extra outs and base runners by way of walks, errors, and hit batsman. Goddamn, there is a surplus beanings in youth baseball.

We’d made three errors in the top half of the seventh inning alone – two of which were dropped fly balls with two outs and the bases loaded. The opposing pitcher then proceeded to hit two of our guys and walk two more, which brought us to Mike’s at bat with the tying run on third and the winning run on second.

Mike did not hit that line drive that makes the world pauses, but he did his job. He slapped a grounder between short and third. At the U-15 level, just putting the ball in play is a positive. The chances of a team fielding, throwing, and catching the ball can’t be higher than sixty percent. Maybe that’s not the case in club ball, but it sure was the case in this city youth league.

With two outs, the runners were moving on contact, so even the easiest play for the shortstop on a grounder to his right – the force at third –would be bang-bang, and the already close playwas made more chaotic by our baserunner’s aversion to sliding until the last possible moment.  He hurdled towards third like a puppy, awaiting my instructions on what to do.

What to do was obvious. Slide! “Down! Down! Down!” I shouted, waving both hands at the ground.

There was a bit of a pileup between the runner and the third baseman. They fell over the bag into foul territory at my feet, and the third baseman dropped the ball. He picked it up and tagged the runner for the third out of the inning. Game over. We lost, 11-12.

Most folks at Rickey Henderson Field were OK the game was over – the parents, the players, and certainly the awaiting men’s league teams, who had begun trickling onto the field, eager to get their game started. There I was confronting Glen, the umpire who also happened to be a league coordinator and senior division all-star coach.

You, reader, ought to know a couple details before we dig into the argument that is about to unfold:

  1. I may have also given Glen a little business on another bad call at third base earlier in the game.
  2. Our team is undefeated at the time. It’s not everything, but a chance at perfection, no matter how minor, has value. It counts.
  3. It’s a safe bet my recollection of the conversation with Glen has me sound more succinct and stern, and generally quickeron my feet than how it actually played out. I’ll cop to that up front, but that’s the perk of my narrating the story.

“How is he out?” I asked.

“He’s out. Now don’t.”

“How?”

“Come on!”

Both hands are on my hips at this point. “Was he out on the force, or was he out on the tag?”

“He’s out.”

“Third base dropped the ball, Glen. If he’s out on the force, then you’re telling me third base dropped the ball after the play was over.”

The ump shook his head and tried to cut me off. He’d just umpired a three-hour youth game. He was done. I was not.

“Hold on, hold on, hold on. I’m just asking, because if he’s out on the tag after third base dropped the ball, then the force is no longer in effect. He did drop the ball, which is why he tagged my guy. If the force is no longer in play, then the lead runner crossing home plate before the out is recorded counts, and we have a tie ball game.”

I took a breath. “So was it on the force or the tag?”

He stared through me for a moment. “I didn’t see the dropped ball, OK. If you want, I can ask the base ump.”

Players were already packing up and walking off the field to their parents behind the backstop. The paunchy men’s leaguers with too many armbands were already playing catch in the outfield and trying to avoid the inevitable hamstring tweak by jogging across the outfield. There was zero chance I was going to ask the base ump, who I think was maybe fifteen, to weigh in and overturn a call that would restart the game. Did I mention we’d been playing for three hours? We didn’t deserve to win if we left it up to one call on a messy, weird play. I was already late for a going-away-party anyway.

Months later, I think about why I kept on the umpire? Of course I wanted to win the game. More than that, I wanted Mike to know the feeling of a walk-off hit, and that moment was over – impossible to get back – whether or not the game should have been. As a consolation, or perhaps a consequence, I wanted the ump to at least know he was wrong.

The truth is I’d already won. I’d spent the morning coaching a baseball team for the first time in 14 years.  It’s the best.

***

Before we proceed, you should know a few things about baseball and me.

Baseball is the first love that I discovered. I didn’t come from a “baseball family”. Nothing was expected of me within the context of baseball. I found the game, and I loved the game. Simple as that.

There are more moments of perfection in baseball than anything else I’ve come across in my life. That was the case when I was ten, and it remains true. The numb inertia of turning on an inside fastball. The sting of a scab rolling up your elbow on a headfirst slide into second. The smell of pine tar. The lethargic game of catch in shallow outfield before game two of a double-header. The heat and the dust and the smell of cut grass and the distant cigar all swirl around you like a spirit.

The game was everything to me until I accepted I wasn’t enough for it to be everything. I was still a teenager when I knew I was a college baseball player at best. Fast enough, big enough, powerful enough, quick enough. They all matter, and I didn’t possess enough of any of them, but ninety-five percent of baseball is about quickness. Power without quickness is easily neutralized. Speed without quickness doesn’t factor in too much in a game where bases are only 90 feet apart and the ball is always faster than the player. Size without speed, power, or quickness is just someone playing the wrong sport.

I was quick enough defensively, but as a hitter I couldn’t convince my body to wait for my mind to recognize the slider is actually darting eight inches outside of the strike zone. I couldn’t hold off from making an ugly, lunging swing off my front foot. Worse yet, I had just enough hand-eye coordination to put that pitcher’s pitch in play as a weak grounder to second base.

What followed college was a decade when I stashed baseball away like crumpled mementos of relationships past. The metaphor between baseball and life was cliché, and so were the lessons therein. The twenties version of me figured it was time to grow up. Gone was the kid with pictures of Kirby Puckett carefully torn from Sports Illustrated and taped to my bedroom walls.

I was busy writing a (bad) novel. I was playing in a (inexperienced) band. I was a young Minnesota dude living in San Francisco, dammit. There were women to meet, places to be, a life to live that would impress folks back home over the holidays. Baseball wasn’t in the script for this California odyssey.

I was a little up my own ass in my twenties, in case you hadn’t noticed. Me and a good chunk of you readers, but that’s ok.

Photographer most likely Amy Hansen.

From a catcher for the Minnesota Twins to the author of the next great American novel or – because I didn’t want to limit myself as merely the next great American novelist – the next Dylan. I had traded in one cliché aspiration for two somehow less likely clichéd aspirations. Turns out, that is not a terrible approach to enjoy your twenties.

I’m 36 now, and not long ago I came back to baseball. You grow up, and if you’ve lived a charmed life like I have, you are allowed to come full circle. You have the luxury to believe that the kid with Kirby Puckett pictures taped to the wall didn’t vanish after all, even when you realize that Puckett was just some flawed dude that was really good at a game and really bad to women.

Baseball remains the activity I have spent the most time doing in my life, the subject about which I know the most, and the “trade” in which I achieved the highest level of proficiency. But these are not good enough reason to come back to a childhood passion. The real gold lies in the lessons from the game. They translate to everything. This is not revelatory but for the fact that it’s actually not a bullshit line from a youth league registration pamphlet.

Kent Anderson’s Little League mantra – every ball’s coming to me, know what I’m going to do with it – remains the best professional, financial, relationship, and baseball advice I’ve ever come across.

***

Kent Anderson (left) popping the collar and John Traeger (right). Photo courtesy of Jay Kurtis. 

Kent, Tony, Jay, and Coach – I would not feel the way I do about baseball if it were not for these men. I got lucky with great coaches at pretty much every phase of my baseball life. From Little League through college, I had mentors that knew the game, could communicate the game, and fed my passion. In large part, they are the reason I think about baseball metaphors and axioms when I’m in a conference room listening to fluorescent lights buzz.

That said, I cannot gloss over the other implied truth. I also love the game because I didn’t suck at it when I was eight. More importantly, I was recognized as having some ability, and that recognition at an early age is everything. Think about how many of our interests or lifelong pursuits are launched by an early recognition of ability. A fourth grade teacher says a kid with low self-esteem has a knack for math. A music teacher tells a new trumpet player she has excellent tone. A baseball coach sees some raw talent in a swing and doesn’t over-coach.

There are thousands, if not millions, of solid Little Leaguers who never sniff high school ball, but there aren’t many kids who were terrible in Little League that stuck it out and became a varsity starter. A player must experience some success and recognition early on – even if it’s just one person who sees it – for even the hope of playing high school baseball.

Kent was the first coach to see it in me. We had a catch behind the batting cages at Bruce Russell field on Roselawn Avenue in Roseville, Minnesota. I was there with what felt like hundreds of other kids trying out for the Majors division, the competitive 6-team league for kids between ten and twelve years old. It being April in Minnesota, I remember it being grey and wet and blowing on my fingers to get some grip and circulation. And I remember the lines.

There were lines of kids strewn about the field – one wrapping around the batting cage, another in left field waiting on dads to hit decent fly balls so the kids could track down a deep one, spin, and throw a strike to the cut-off man. There was a line at shortstop for coaches to get a look at how kids fielded a grounder. Three pop-ups, three grounders, and ten swings in a batting cage. Sixteen opportunities to determine if you were one of the two dozen kids picked to play in the good league with real jerseys, a grass infield and a snack shack; if not, your destiny was all-dirt infields and t-shirt jerseys. Such is life.

What if the guy running the pitching machine spent six pitches adjusting the location during your turn? What if you got a bad hop fielding grounders? There is a fair amount of chance when you’re dealing with a sample size as small as a Little League tryout.

But there’s little left to chance in playing catch, a fact I’m sure wasn’t lost on Kent when he asked me to have a catch behind the batting cage. I’d guess we threw for five minutes. He asked me…hell, I don’t know what he asked me; I was excited. The coach of the best team in the league – the younger, non-dad coach who drove a red BMW convertible – was playing a real game of catch with me. He wasn’t looping them into me – he was throwing left-handed darts. I was catching with two hands, moving my feet, focusing on the center of his chest and trying to make the perfect throw on a line every time.  Kent was a lanky guy with a big frame surrounding his floppy glove. It was impossible to miss his target.

Kent drafted me to play on the Indians, which became the Red Sox when folks spoke up about the name. Kent and John Traeger’s team should’ve been the Yankees, as the Indians dominated the league for the better part of two decades. I am almost certain Kent and Traeger drafted me in part as result of that catch with Kent. It’s plain to me now why it was as important as any other part of the tryout.

When you play catch—the most fundamental component of the game—you can make all of the important assessments about a ten year-old’s ability to play and improve. How do the feet move? What’s the attention to detail and the ability to focus? Is the throwing motion natural? Does the kid catch the ballor stop the ball with his glove?  Is there a semblance of eagerness, of urgency? All of these questions can by answered just by playing catch with a kid.

You can coach a kid up in a lot of ways. You can teach him how to stay down on a grounder and throw a slurve. You can even teach hitting to a certain extent. But you can’t teach a kid to throw, and you can’t coach someone into caring about a game of catch.

Kent and Traeger’s Retirement Party invite from my mom and Kathy Kurtis. Note the lack of area codes on the phone numbers. A combined 55 years of coaching Little League. 

Kent coached Little League for eighteen years. His most reliable tools were simplicity, repetition, and clarity. In his quiet, stoic demeanor, he expected us to succeed and then we expected to succeed, and then—guess what—we succeeded. For a ten year-old to have that mindset rewarded with tangible results is a positive experience not easily forgotten. In my case, that mindset was rewarded time and time again throughout my baseball life. It’s no longer just a memory about making a great play or getting a clutch hit as a kid. That Little League lesson has come to define how I approach my day, my life.

My expectations haven’t changed since I was ten. I expect to succeed, for good things to happen to me. It’s astounding when I pause to think about it.

Twenty-six years later, I want Mike to know that same feeling. That’s why it matters if the runner at third was out on the force or on the tag. – PAL 

Photo c/o Jay Kurtis (third from the left, and one hell of a shortstop). I am the short kid next to Jay. I played outfield when I was ten and eleven. After that, it was only the tools of ignorance for me. 

Read Part II here